Hacked from his shoulders and stashed in a sports bag, the teenager’s severed head was destined for the doorstep of swaggering gangster Cornelius Price.
Earlier, unsuspecting children had peeked inside a black hold-all that was tossed from a speeding car and found the bloodied limbs of the same boy, 17-year-old Keane Mulready-Woods.
The grisly, blood-soaked warnings were more akin to something from a Mexican cartel vendetta or an Isis video horror than a criminal feud in a historic Irish market town.
Now there are fears that the violence that has plagued Drogheda could move to Manchester, where Price is said to have gone to ground.
The mobster — described as a “very dangerous and volatile criminal” — took the blood-curdling hint to flee when his associate Keane was killed.
The British city has seen its share of gangster-related gun crime but the bloody violence played out in the Irish town was at another level, more closely echoing the 1980s reign of terror presided over by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
Rival Irish villains have placed a 100,000 euro (£84,000) contract on Price’s head and are said to be prepared to stop at nothing to see him dead, wherever he is.
If they find him in Manchester, he may face a similar fate to Keane’s.
So who is Price and why is he being linked to the barbarous “narco-terrorism” hit?
The answers lie in bustling Drogheda — population 40,000 — which straddles the River Boyne on Ireland’s east coast route between Dublin and Belfast.
Known for its medieval history and atmospheric old pubs, it’s the home town of former James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan and Irish international footballers Gary Kelly and Steve Staunton.
Inside the town’s St Peter’s Church is displayed the severed head of Oliver Plunkett — patron saint for peace and reconciliation in Ireland — who was hanged, drawn and quartered in England in 1681.
Now another grisly decapitation has put the town in the spotlight.
On January 12, Keane was spotted for perhaps the last time by the town’s Dominic’s Bridge at around 6pm. He stood out in his head-to-toe designer clothing — a red Canada Goose jacket, Hugo Boss tracksuit and Gucci baseball cap.
It was flash gear for a teenager brought up on one of Drogheda’s tough council estates.
For freckle-faced Keane had become part of what local chief superintendent Christy Mangan called a “lost generation” of youngsters lured into gang life.
Living with his mum and sister, he dropped out of school and drifted into petty crime, coming to the notice of cops for the first time aged just 14.
A year later Keane was said to have aimed a gun at the manager of a Drogheda shop.
Soon he was a foot soldier for a local gang pushing cocaine and cannabis.
According to reports in Ireland, Keane began working as an enforcer for the firm that included local hoods Owen Maguire, from the Irish traveller community, and Price.
Described in the Irish press as a “major gangster”, tattooed Price had been jailed for three years in 2014 for driving a van at a uniformed cop at high speed.
The court heard he had 18 previous convictions, for careless driving, public order offences and assaults.
Maguire is also “well known” to detectives. His convictions include threats to kill and affray.
In the summer of 2018 smouldering inter-mob rivalry exploded into bloody tit-for-tat mayhem after two members of the gang quit and became sworn enemies of Maguire and Price in what is known as the Drogheda Feud.
It began when Maguire was paralysed from the waist down by a bullet in his spine after a botched assassination attempt by the former gang members.
Parish priest Father Phil Gaffney said of Keane: “He was naive enough to fall in with the wrong people, and I suppose not knowing or anticipating the dire consequences of his lifestyle.
“As his mother said, she did her best for him. She was trying to get him away from some of those people involved in crime. But I suppose he did fall for the rewards of this.”
Last year Keane was convicted of intimidation after threatening a mother into paying her child’s drug debt and was still awaiting sentence.
Around four hours after he was seen by the bridge in Drogheda, the black sports bag containing his severed limbs was thrown from a speeding car on to a footpath in the Moatview housing estate in Coolock, north Dublin, 30 miles away.
Two days later his head was found in a stolen and burnt-out Volvo V40 left in a quiet lane in north Dublin. His torso, thought to bear the injuries that killed him, is still missing.
The killer — thought to be the same “psychotic” north Dublin hitman behind the Maguire shooting — was reported to have been en route with an accomplice to dump their grim trophy on Price’s doorstep.
But they were spooked when they spotted cops investigating a separate incident.
Last night the Irish police said no arrests have been made in connection with Keane’s murder. The Drogheda Feud — played out on social media as well as on the streets — has claimed another murder victim.
Last year there were more than 70 related incidents in the gang war, including petrol bombings of houses and cars, shootings, beatings and various other acts of extreme violence.
Last April Owen Maguire’s brother Brendan, 39, survived being shot in the neck and arm by a gunman in front of terrified shoppers near a toy store in Drogheda.
Four months later, newly married Keith Branigan, 29, an associate of the Maguires’ rivals, died when he was gunned down at a caravan park in Clogherhead, seven miles away.
Then last November, drug dealer Richard Carberry, 39, died when he was ambushed by a gunman after arriving home in nearby Bettystown.
A drug runner for one of the gangs described the rival firms as “scumbags to the highest degree”.
He added: “They’re all junked up, they’re all on steroids, they’re all f***ed up in the head.
“They’re manic in the head, they’re very dangerous people.”
He said the feud was a drugs turf war, while others say the once tight-knit Drogheda gang had splintered because two members had been convinced by bigoted “major players” from north Dublin’s criminal fraternity that they shouldn’t work with travellers such as Maguire.
The Dublin crooks also convinced the pair they were being treated like “corner boys” — kids hanging around on street corners — by the Maguire faction that included Price.
A day after Keane’s murder, taxi driver John Myles survived being shot as he ferried two passengers across Drogheda’s so-called Bridge Of Peace.
A bullet went through the window and hit him in the back.
John, who believes it was intended for one of his passengers, said of his town’s gangsters: “They do what they do because they can’t do an honest day’s work. It’s us that has to suffer.” On Saturday around 4,000 people, including Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, joined a protest against the gang violence.
Drogheda’s Lord Mayor, Councillor Paul Bell, told the crowd outside St Peter’s Church: “We will not tolerate this ongoing feud.”
He said residents were “terror-fatigued” and were “in the business of taking back the town”.
Since Price’s release from prison in May, he has spent time in Birmingham and Manchester. His current location is unknown.
Joseph Maughan, whose son Willie and his pregnant girlfriend Ana Varslavane were murdered by Price’s associates in 2015, called the gangster a “coward”.
He added: “He’s running like he always does. The only person he cares about is himself. I’ve no doubt that if that young lad had never met Price’s associates he’d still be alive.”
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